Homeroom: How to Teach Your Kid to Love Reading

One of my daughters can’t bear to put her book down. The other only wants to play dress-up.

An illustration of a mother crawling out of a giant book and trying to get her daughter's attention. Her daughter stands aside, arms crossed.
a squiggly pencil

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.

Dear Abby and Brian,

We have two daughters, one in fourth grade, the other in second. Our fourth grader, whom I’ll refer to as “Em,” loves reading. She stays up late to finish a chapter of whatever series she’s enjoying at the moment, and is always eager to search for the next installment online. Our second grader, “Tess,” is the opposite. She’s at the point now where she can sound out most words, but getting her to do the nightly reading assigned by her teacher is torture, and any time we suggest that she read by herself, she refuses. She’d rather play dress-up. I feel like we did right by her sister but failed her! How do we encourage Tess to be more interested in reading?

Los Angeles, California

Dear Jessica,

The pressure you feel about your daughters’ reading is wholly understandable. Pediatricians and educators are constantly telling parents to prize literary skills. And with good reason: Early reading has been associated with a host of positive outcomes, not only academic, but social and emotional, too. So when kids falter as readers, parents often feel a double frustration: one born of concern for their child, and another stemming from a sense of failure as a parent. But getting Tess more interested in reading will require fighting this kind of thinking, and avoiding telegraphing your concern to her unintentionally. Instead, try to view Tess’s learning to read as an opportunity to delve into her interests in a way you can both enjoy.

Let’s begin with what might be causing Tess to want to avoid reading. Of course, Tess may simply prefer doing other things. But she may also find reading stressful, in part because you’re stressed. Kids, after all, are quite good at discerning the preoccupations of their parents.

Em might be another source of discouragement. Tess must find it hard that Em takes such pleasure in reading, when Tess herself struggles. It’s no surprise that she’d rather play dress-up. Wherever Em does her reading, be sure that Tess does hers in a different room. Em’s presence might be distracting, or even disheartening, if she’s reading a book that Tess can’t. And for you: Try not to think of Em as the standard of a good reader; focus instead on how you might help make reading something Tess looks forward to.

Once you’ve removed those roadblocks, let’s look at what you can do to make reading more fun for Tess. First off, while Em’s presence may be distracting, yours will be invaluable. The time you spend reading with Tess offers a chance for you to hang out, bond, and let her share the joy you find in books.

Start by helping Tess find a “just right” book. Let her pick the topic. You may have read all of Beverly Cleary’s books when you were little, and maybe Em has too, but don’t fret if Tess doesn’t take to them. You say she loves to dress up and create worlds of her own. Maybe she’d prefer to read fantasy books, or science fiction. (The Kingdom of Wrenly, for example, is a favorite beginners’ chapter-book series among many second graders.) Let Tess take the lead in making your reading time together enjoyable. Maybe the two of you can start a book club, with her picking the first book, and you proposing the second. Or perhaps you can look online at some choices, read the synopses together, and chat about which might be fun to read next.

In addition to holding Tess’s interest, a “just right” book will include two or three unfamiliar words on every page. Beginner readers won’t be able to improve with books that are too easy for them. Too many hard words, however, may scare them off. Talk with Tess’s teacher about her reading level, then check out Scholastic’s Book Wizard for information about the difficulty of any title in its database. And if you have it in you, flip through the first couple of chapters before Tess starts a new book to note challenging words. Reviewing them with Tess in advance will help her focus on the story instead of being intimidated by new vocabulary.

Read books aloud to Tess, pointing to lines as you read them so that she can connect the printed word with the spoken word. Take turns so that she reads aloud to you too. Shared reading is a great opportunity for dialogue. You can ask Tess how she visualizes the setting, or to make predictions about what will happen next. Or ask her what a character might be thinking or how they might say something, given the context of the story. Kids are perceptive, so don’t go overboard, but these conversations can make delving into the text easier. Have fun and she probably will too.

If Tess is having a tough time getting into the story, encourage her to make connections outside of the text. There are three main ways to draw these connections: text to text, text to self, and text to world. When you chat with Tess about the book, you can ask her whether a character or event in the story reminds her of someone or something that happened in another story. Or in a TV show or movie. Or perhaps part of the plot reminds Tess of an experience from her own life. Considering how the events in a story relate to what’s happening in the world might also be a helpful entry point for Tess. If you’re looking for a great series to read with Tess while learning about history and the world, the Ordinary People Change the World books are fantastic. Kids (including our own) love the illustrations, and the lessons about what children can grow up to accomplish are invaluable.

You know your daughter best. You know what kinds of games or jokes or silly gimmicks she responds to, whether putting on a funny voice or jumping to your feet to act out a climactic confrontation. Maybe Tess can work on her own book and illustrate it with markers or stickers. Maybe on Saturdays, Tess can dress up as a favorite character. Or the two of you might establish a reading ritual that you know she’ll look forward to, like sipping hot chocolate or sharing a cozy blanket. It doesn’t need to be anything extravagant. It just needs to feel special to Tess.

If you’re still concerned, check in with Tess’s teacher to ask for her observations about Tess’s reading and for advice about supporting her reading at home. Local librarians are also incredible resources when it comes to suggesting books for any type of reader.

No kid learns to read overnight. As with all skills, the key to growth is repetition. Em may have picked up reading more easily, but Tess will get there too, at her own pace—and there’s nothing wrong with that.